PAPER TOPIC III
HUMAN RIGHTS
Philosophy 19A
A Legal Studies Course
Professor Andreas Teuber





"Consider the following:

The Shallow Pond

The path from John's dorm room to Shiffman passes a shallow ornamental pond. On his way to the Human Rights class, John notices that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. If John wades in and pulls the child out, it will mean getting his clothes muddy and either missing the Human Rights class or delaying it until he can find something clean and dry to wear. He is also wearing a brand new pair of Gucci shoes which he is "breaking in" for the first time. Assume that it is evident from the circumstances that there is no time for John to take off his shoes if he has any hope of saving the child and that John himself can "see" that this is so. Johm's shoes will become wet and be ruined beyond repair. To replace the shoes will cost him $100. If John passes by the child, then, while hell make the Human Rights class on time, the child will die straightaway. John heads straight for the Human Rights class and, as expected, the child dies.

Has John behaved badly? What do you think? What is your immediate, intutive moral judgment about John's behavior?

Most of us think that if a person is walking past a shallow pond and sees a child drowning in it, he or she ought to wade in and pull the child out. If that means getting ones clothes muddy and ones shoes wet, even if it means having to pay a sizeable cleaning bill or having to purchase a new pair of shoes, this is insignificant when the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. And not unsurprisingly, it so happens that almost everyones intutive moral judgment is that were that person to pass by, that persons conduct would be abominable.

This case and cases like it, Peter Singer claims, illustrate the intuitive appeal of the following moral principle: "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." In the case of the Shallow Pond, this would appear to be sage moral advice or so it would seem. If muddying his clothes and getting his "new" shoes wet, saves the life of an innocent child, then it is time for John to send the Cleaners and the Shoe Store some business.

But now Peter Singer also claims that this example shows we have a serious moral obligation to relieve world hunger. But how can this be? Does this case reflect a strong obligation to aid thats quite general? Many think that our intuitive moral responses to examples like the case of the Shallow Pond do not reflect anything very general at all? Take the following, for instance:

The Envelope

In your mailbox, theres something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your wastebasket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have died had you sent in the requested $100.

According to Singer, you ought to send the money and it would be "wrong" not to do so, but almost everyone reacts to this example that your conduct isn't wrong at all. As Singer himself acknowledges, most people think "if you send a check, you will be thanked for your generosity. Because giving money is regarded as an act of charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. The charitable [person] may be praised, but a [person] who is not charitable is not condemned. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it," in this case, to UNICEF. And yet Singer believes "this way of looking at the matter cannot be justified." What do you think? Is it wrong for John to fail to aid the drowning child in the first case, but not wrong for you to fail to prevent thirty children from dying in the second?

If so, what is the moral difference between the two cases? Drawing on the reading and your own most reflective and considered opinion, what is the difference between them that helps to explain the different judgments of your conduct in the first and sceond cases. One difference, of course, is that the first case involves a pond and a drowning, both of which are absent from the second case. But this surely is not a significant "moral" difference, no? And the second case involves the postal system, but not the first. But this can't be a difference that makes a difference? No doubt there may be any number of differences between the two cases, psychological, cultural, and geographical that help to explain peoples differing moral responses to the two cases, but are any of these moral differences? What are the significant moral differences, if any, between the two cases that might help to justify the two different judgments of Johm's and your conduct? Or put another way, what might morally ground judging negatively Johm's behavior and not your behavior?

If you believe it is just as wrong for you to save the children in the second case as it is wrong for John to fail to save the child in the first case, drawing on the reading and your own most reflective and considered opinion, make a case for why you think the sorts of differences people believe make a difference in our moral responses to the two cases do not, as it were, cut any moral mustard, i. e., do not make any significant moral difference."

So there you have it once again: the question.

Now on Friday, April 30th, I handed out a preliminary list that purported to identify a number of differences between the two cases that some people have believed explain our different judgments (not necessarily in the two cases before you, but in cases like them) of John's conduct in the case of "The Shallow Pond" and your conduct in the case of "The Envelope." The big question is, of course, are any of these differences moral differences?

Here once again is that list to which I have added two more candidates: "(19) A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard," which may simply be a variant of (18) and "(20) Property Rights."

(1) Physical Proximity
(2) Social Proximity
(3) Informational Directness
(4) Experiential Impact
(5) Unique Potential Savior
(6) A Single Individual Saved vs. a Multitude in Need of Saving
(7) Leaving it to the Government
(8) The Continuing Mess
(9) Emergencies vs. Chronic Horrors
(10) Urgency
(11) Causally Focused vs. Causally Amorphous Aid
(12) Saving vs. Helping to Prevent
(13) Knowing Whom You Are Saving vs. Saving Strangers
(14) Providing a Service vs. Sending Money
(15) Conspicuous vs. Inconspicuous Need
(16) Taking Care of Our Own
(17) Overpopulation and the Ethics of Triage
(18) Helping and Being Done With It vs. Helping and Helping and Helping.
(19) A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard
(20) Property Rights

I have prepared a set of Notes and a Study Guide for the Final Paper Topic which can be reached by clicking here for a MultiFile Edition (Sections Load Quickly) or here for a Single File Edition (Loads Slowly, but once loaded is easy to browse and search)

Direct Links to Study Guide Sections:

   I. In the Case of "The Envelope" I Am Asked To Save (Prevent) Thirty Children from Dying. Surely World Hunger Affects Many People, Young and Old Alike: Why Are Children Being Singled Out for My Attention and Concern?

   II. How Can My $100 Keep Thirty Children from Dying? Can You Break It Down for Me?

   III. It is Sometimes Said That Morality Itself is Rational, But What Does That Mean? For Instance, Henry Shue Says "Basic Rights" Are, Among Other Things, "Rational Demands." Should I Worry About Whether My Sense That I Should Save the Child from Drowning is Rational or Not? And What About "Truth"? Are Moral Judgments True and Objective? And What if They are Not? Won't All Hell Break Loose? Aren't We Free Then to Do as We Darn Well Please?

   IV. I Am Not Quite Certain How My Moral Intuitions Are Supposed to Fit Into All This? Should I Trust My "Moral Intuitions" or Do I Have Reason to be Suspicious?

   V. The Case of The Envelope Suggests That If I Send $100 to UNICEF, Thirty Less Children Will Die, But There May be Other Ways of Preventing Children from Dying That Are Even More Effective Than Sending Money to UNICEF. Is This an Excuse or Reason Not to Give?

   VI. Peter Singer's Argument: Consequences, Rights, and Obligations

   VII. Is Singer's Argument Deceptive?

   VIII. The Child That John Could Save from Drowning Was Only a Few Feet Away from Him; Whereas the Children in the Envelope Case are Miles Away (Physical Proximity)

   IX. The Child That John Could Save from Drowning Was, Like John, an American; Whereas the Children in the Envelope Case are All Foreigners (Social Proximity)

   X. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond John acquires his information directly; he "sees" what he needs to do. But in the case of The Envelope the information is much more indirect. (Informational Directness)

   XI. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond John directly "experiences" what he needs to do. But in the case of The Envelope, he has no direct experience of those whom he is saving. (Experiential Impact)

   XII. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond John was the only one who could save the child at that moment; whereas there are many others much wealthier than I am who could send money to UNICEF. (Unique Potential Savior)

   XIII. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond there was just one person in need of being saved; whereas there is a "vast multitude" in need of saving as part of UNICEF's program. (A Single Individual Saved vs. a Multitude in Need of Saving)

   XIV. Aid to those children that UNICEF is trying to help should be the responsibility of governments and should not be the responsibility of privately run charities and certainly not my responsibility. (Leaving it to the Government)

   XV. Even if I do send the $100 to UNICEF, there'll still be many children very prematurely dying. Indeed, no matter what I do, there'll still be, for very many years, very many children dying from easily preventable causes. (The Continuing Mess)

   XVI. The child in need in the case of the Shallow Pond is an emergency; whereas the situation of the children in the case of The Envelope is not. (Emergencies vs. Chronic Horrors)

   XVII. When someone will drown very soon unless you help her, it's morally required that you aid. But, if there's lots of time before anything much happens, aiding isn't morally required. (Urgency)

   XVIII. If John saved the child from drowning, his aid would have been causally focused on that particular needy child; whereas in the case of The Envelope , even if I'd behaved helpfully and mailed in my check, there'd never be anyone for whom I'd have made the difference between suffering a serious loss and suffering none. (Causally Focused vs. Causally Amorphous Aid)

   XIX. If John saves the child from drowning, he'll be saving, actually saving a child from dying; whereas in the case of The Envelope, if I send money, I will be only preventing children from dying. (Saving vs. Helping to Prevent)

   XX. If John saved the child from drowning, he'd know, when all was done, whom he saved; whereas in the case of The Envelope I don't know whom I am saving from an early death. (Knowing Whom You Are Saving vs. Saving Strangers)

   XXI. If John saves the child from drowning, he provides a service for a needy person; whereas in the case of The Envelope , if I behave helpfully, all I have to provide is money. (Providing a Service vs. Sending Money)

   XXII. If John saved the child from drowning, he'd know, when all was done, whom he saved; whereas in the case of The Envelope I don't know whom I am saving from an early death. (Conspicuous vs. Inconspicuous Need)

   XXIII. John should save the child from drowning, but it's not wrong for me not to contribute to UNICEF because we should look after those near to us, our families, and then to the children who are in need in our own country, before we think about poor and dying children in other far-off places. (Taking Care of Our Own)

   XXIV If I donate to UNICEF, I'll just help create a situation, in the further future, when there'll be disastrously more children painfully dying. So, it's actually better to throw away the envelope. At the very least, it's not wrong. (Overpopulation and the Ethics of Triage)

   XXV. John should save the child from drowning, and once he's done so, he's "off the moral hook," so to speak, but if I donate to UNICEF, there's hardly any stopping; having saved thirty children, there'll be another thirty to save, and so on and so on and so on. (Helping and Being Done With It vs. Helping and Helping and Helping)

   XXVI. John should save the child from drowning and to expect no less from John is to place no more than a reasonable demand on his conduct, but, as my previous concern makes plain, if I am to be judged negatively for tossing UNICEF's original appeal into my wastebasket that only goes to show that there is something very wrong with morality: that it is too highly demanding and what needs to change, then, is not my conduct, but our view of morality. (A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard)

   XXVII. If I donate to UNICEF, I will be spending my own money, and my money belongs to me and is something I am free to spend as I see fit and I should not be condemned for not giving to UNICEF something that I have a right to in the first place. (Property Rights)


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February 14, 1998

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